Welcome to Girl Museum’s 10th Anniversary year. We have many exciting projects for our community, including this new blog series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies. Each month we will feature an interview with a scholar in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and its experiences.
Our first interview is with Dr. Anastasia Todd, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky.
Let’s begin with defining our terms, especially since Girls’ Studies is a relatively new academic area. Can you tell our readers what your field of expertise is and how you see it within Girls’ Studies?
I am currently an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, and my research broadly investigates the intersections of disability, girlhood, and affect, or emotion. My book project, tentatively titled Affective Citizen: Disabled Girlhood and U.S. Disability Exceptionalism, uncovers how representations of disabled girlhood work to construct an affective roadmap to “good” citizenship at the beginning of the 21st century in the United States. My work to date brings together affect theory, feminist disability studies, and girls’ studies as a framework for interrogating the “disabled girl” as a category of analysis articulated through gender, ability, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. More specifically, in the book I analyze media representations of disabled girlhood on YouTube, HBO, GoFundMe, and in the national news. Each chapter traces how the disabled girl’s body becomes a conduit for specific affects, such as benevolence, optimism, happiness, and suspicion. The book ultimately traces how certain disabled girls become recognized and incorporated into the national imaginary through their capacity to teach able-bodied and disabled people how to cope with a capricious 21st century sociopolitical climate.
I started working with girls’ studies in graduate school, and more specifically I started doing work on disabled girlhoods because I noticed there was a gap in the field of girls’ studies. Most academic work on disabled girlhoods comes from a medicalized or pathologizing perspective, where disabled girls are framed in terms of risk or lack. I was interested in using the theoretical tools girls’ studies afforded in order to complicate these one-dimensional narratives and ultimately get at the nuance and texture inherent in disabled girls’ lives. This brings me to my next project that I am working on with a colleague, Heather Switzer, from Arizona State University. We’ve interviewed over 30 undergraduate young women who currently manage an invisible disability in order to think through how gender, age, and invisible disability intersect and structure our participants lives. We see this project as a sort of feminist disability studies/girls’ studies intervention that seeks to build an archive of invisible disability knowledge and experience. This goes back to what I’ve mentioned above—there is a lack of academic work that attempts to get at the nuanced lived experience at the intersection of young womanhood/girlhood and disability. We use the terminology “young womanhood” in our project because many of our participants, although “legally” adults, still articulate feeling like they inhabit a liminal space between girlhood and womanhood (and also a liminal space between able-bodiedness and disability). Theoretical contributions from girls’ studies such as the notion of “girl power,” post-feminism, and the “can-do” girl, all provide excellent lenses for critically interrogating the ways in which our participants feel like they have to “do it all” on top of managing a physical or mental disability.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
Girls’ studies provides a specific space, language, and theoretical lens for scholars who are committed to doing work on girlhood that is nuanced, critical, and accountable to girls’ lives. As I touch on above, girls’ studies affords me with the intellectual tools necessary to construct a more textured and nuanced narrative of disabled girlhood.There are vast disparities globally in girls’ situations, with incremental improvements in some areas and serious steps backwards in others.
From your work in Girls’ Studies, what are some positives you take away from the academic interest in girls and girlhood? What changes can it lead to?
There are scholars doing some amazing, critical work on global girlhoods. My colleague, Heather Switzer, has just published a book, When the Light Is Fire: Maasai Schoolgirls in Contemporary Kenya, and it challenges the widespread belief that education is the “silver bullet” solution to global poverty. She interviewed over 100 Kenyan Massai schoolgirls and presents a compelling argument about schoolgirl desire, knowledge, and experience that pushes back against flattening and oppressive narratives that are present in development literature and NGO campaigns. Her work is an example of how it’s important to actually listen to what girls need and desire—especially girls in the global south, who are most often reduced to the stereotype of a helpless victim of their culture.
I also really appreciate and am indebted to girls’ studies work on indigenous and racialized girlhoods. Lena Palacios, Sandrina de Finney, and Patricia Krueger-Henney are editing a special issue of Girlhood Studies on girls in settler and carceral states. Their work brings to mind both Cyntoia Brown and Jakelin Caal Maquin. Brown was just granted clemency after being incarcerated for 15 years for an act of self-defense and Maquin died at the hands of US border patrol after seeking asylum. Both cases, in different ways, illustrate how important it is, for us as girls’ studies scholars to think through the violent intersections of nationalism, capitalism, age, race, gender, sexuality, and ability, and be accountable and show up for girls who have been otherwise deemed disposable.
What are the biggest challenges now and going forward for Girls Studies in an academic world? Do you see Girls’ Studies programs being a reality?
I think some of the biggest challenges have to do with recognition and visibility. When I was in graduate school, I got a lot of questions about why girls’ studies was important when it seemed as though feminist theory was a sufficient analytical framework for getting at the intersection of gender and age. I think a lot of the skepticism has to do with the fact that girls’ studies is a newer subfield, and not many folks in GWS are as familiar with its intellectual contributions to the study of girlhood (as it exists as a discrete category of analysis). I can envision the development and implementation of girls’ studies programs. I think girls’ studies is especially important for students who want to work with girls outside of the confines of the academy. Girls’ studies can provide a needed critical lens for folks who want to work with girls—whether that be in at an NGO, non-profit organization, or even within the classroom. If more folks who worked with girls took girls’ studies courses, then I think they would have the conceptual framework and language to perhaps be better allies and strive toward being more accountable to the girls that they work with.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
I think this is a complicated question. As someone who does research about the Internet and how disabled girls have engaged in self-representation online, I see the Internet as a valuable space for folks to connect and build community. For example, in the last few years there has been an upsurge in disabled girl/young women YouTubers, and you would be astounded with how many disabled girls/young women comment and engage with these YouTubers on different social media platforms. Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram have also provided the needed space for so many disabled young people to share their stories and connect and relate to each other (for example, check out #disabledandcute, #deaftalent, #hospitalglam). So, I see social media as an extremely valuable tool of connection and community for disabled girls/young women who may not know any other disabled folks IRL (in real life). As someone who grew up with the Internet, I look back, for example, at the connections I was able to make with other girls on livejournal, an online diary, and myspace, and view the Internet as such a special part of my girlhood and an integral part in the process of constructing my identity.
I can understand the fear, though, that some adults may have about girls and the Internet. I highly recommend danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, wherein she discusses and pushes back against this kind of moral panic that’s emerged about girls and the Internet. I think there are a lot of unsafe spaces for girls on the Internet, but there are a lot of unsafe spaces in real life, too. The Internet is just a space that can augment and replicate the racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia that is already embedded in our world. I think the important thing is that the Internet has become a space for girls to articulate their feelings and push back on systems of oppression, too.
For more information about Dr. Todd and her work, check out her bio. Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Miriam Forman-Brunell of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.